They watched her through the glass.
Her eyes were red from the gas and a livid bruise had spread across the bridge of her pert nose, but she sat with a quiet smile on her face, as she slipped her spectacles onto her nose. The minute ghosts of old piercings around her nose and lips lent her face a ruined grandeur but Newman and Peterson paid more attention to her wide shoulders and posture. A predator posing as a housepet, Newman thought as she looked at the file on the tablet.
‘Thank god for the Matriarch Act. She’s here until we decide otherwise.’ she said.
Peterson pinched the bridge of her nose and straightened her back. Her green eyes were dull with fatigue as she stared at the woman. She muttered something under her breath. Newman asked her to repeat herself.
‘I don’t like it. Too convenient.’ she said.
Newman, with her blonde curls and chipper, can do smile resented Peterson’s inability to see a good thing when it happened. Activists seldom lasted without psychological damage or, as in this case, arrogance, both of which ended in someone’s ass in a chair, blubbering and naming names. Why should this one be any different?, Newman thought as she considered how to respond.
‘She got sloppy, they always do. Look, the law backs us up, all we have to do is get her to talk.’ Newman said.
Peterson sighed and shook her head.
‘Sedition got tossed out of common law, back when I was in school. Do you think that’s a good thing?’ she said.
Newman grimaced, hiding her concern at Peterson’s rhetorical questions. Their cases were made easier by the Matriarch Act, and women were safer for it,but all Peterson could do was pick at the loose threads of things and pull them apart. It made her a great agent but prickly company, which was why they never spent time together outside of work. Newman wondered if Peterson went home and hung herself on a hanger in a cupboard, waiting to be called into service. She had been active in SocJus for decades and her reputation was impeccable, but Newman noticed the tea stains on the sleeves of her blouse and the lipstick on her mouth more than she used to. Peterson brushed a lock of hair from her eyes and peered at Newman.
‘Let her stew for a minute, I could murder a cuppa.’ she said.
Newman prickled with an indignant surprise.
‘We’re going to have her sit there?’ she said.
Peterson pouted and raised an eyebrow.
‘She’s not going anywhere. Plus you need to read the file before we go in there.’ she said.
Newman turned to hide the blood rising in her cheeks. She admired Peterson but could not say she liked her, all the observations had begun to overwhelm her respect the way carbon monoxide overwhelmed oxygen, and the inconsistency of her approach riled Newman in ways she could not quantify.
‘OK, but I’ve read the file. Some of us do our homework.’ she said.
Peterson sniffed as she reached into her jacket for her cigarettes.
‘Some of us don’t need to, dear. You’ll learn that once you’ve been around.’ she said.
Newman walked behind Peterson, glaring daggers at the back of her head as they left their prisoner in the room.
Peterson smoked to offend, and Newman stood in the doorway, leaning out to talk to her partner but unable to bear the acidic tang of the cigarettes. She had left leaflets on Peterson’s desk about stopping, but they had gone in the bin and so Newman endured this as part of the price of Peterson’s mentorship.
A few months and she could apply for Debate Enforcement, with a corner office and a driverless car. Peterson would stay in SocJus, a wizened, nostalgic fish in a small pond.
‘Look, she’s clever, but who gives a shit? I remember the antifa professor who twatted someone with a bike lock, this is just the other side of that, isn’t it?’ she said.
Peterson puffed on her cigarette and shook her head.
‘Read it again. It’s not a series of qualifications, look at the gestalt of it.’
Newman read through it again.
‘So she was into the holistics, big deal. Meant she had another source of income.’ she said.
Peterson inhaled, fought the cough which seemed more common as the years went on and exhaled smoke in two grey plumes through her nostrils.
‘Hypnotherapy? Clinical psychology? Did you see anything related to gender studies in there at all?’ she said.
Newman shook her head.
‘Wasn’t it mandatory back then?’ she said.
Peterson chuckled and shook her head. Newman returned her attention to the file rather than confront her on the perceived slight.
‘Ah, no it wasn’t. Bet it was like the stone age.’ she said
Peterson glanced across at Newman and felt her chest well up with a piquant nostalgia, grateful for Newman’s capacity to take umbrage and return insult at every opportunity to hide what she felt.
‘No, I always thought we’d figure it out. We’d follow the evidence and make things fairer.’ she said.
Newman looked up and stared at Peterson. The balance of power tilted towards zealotry now, and everyone was cautious of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. Newman tolerated Peterson’s cynicism like her smoking, because she had to but things like this had a way of getting misinterpreted.
‘Things are fairer, and that’s a conversation for another time.’ Newman said.
The twelfth of never, eleventeen o’clock, Peterson thought as she ground the cigarette out under the toe of her shoe. Her back hurt and Newman’s enthusiasm had worn into belligerence and arrogance like a callus on her soul, inflexible to the nuances which made cases stick outside of heavy-handed legislation.
‘Let’s go see what she’s about, shall we?’ she said.
Newman backed up to allow Peterson inside as she studied the file again.
‘Funny.’ Newman said.
Peterson asked her what she meant. Newman chewed the inside of her cheek before she looked up.
‘Says she’s a black belt in a couple of martial arts, but Cradle Team swooped her up whilst she was sloshing milk all over her face for the gas. Thought she’d have put up more of a fight, wouldn’t you?’ she said.
Peterson winked at Newman and grinned.
‘See, few more years and you’ll be handling cases on your own. None of that Debate Enforcement bollocks for you, my dear, I think.’ she said.
Newman smiled but it did not reach her eyes.
A few fucking years, she thought as they went to start their interview.
She knew the qualifications would arouse suspicion. They were genuine, and had been a source of great pride for her but she trusted to the suspicious nature of her gender to tease the covert nature and placement.
It had been a simple act of will.
Noor Inayat Khan had studied child psychology at the Sorbonne but she had also served as one of the few wireless operators in occupied Paris.
Nancy Wake had been a nurse before being recruited to the SoE. So had Sarah Emmons.
Mary Bowe had been a slave.
What united them was a decision to set themselves apart.
She had done the same thing ten years ago, after watching the queues of broken men receiving their implants in return for receiving basic income.
They thought her name was Catherine De Sauve and she would maintain it under pain of torture. It was no more representative of her than the knitted pink sweater and the leather jacket she had worn to the protest.
She smiled as the two agents entered the room. One of them had the faint diesel perfume of cigarettes clinging to her, and the worn, papery skin of a career in SocJus. Her eyes were green but dull, stained with too many sights for them to sparkle. The other was petite, blonde and held her zealotry behind an air of professional enthusiasm which verged on the indecorous. She had a tablet in her hands, loaded with Catherine’s file.
Catherine sat back in the chair
‘Any chance of tea at this juncture?’ she said.
The elder woman sat down and shook her head.
‘All in good time.’ she said.
Catherine guffawed and folded her arms, enjoying the differing levels of irritation her bonhomie evoked in the pair of them.
‘Look, I know you can keep me here, and you’re both itching to kick ten bells of shit out of me, but we’re still British, aren’t we?’ she said.
The elder woman tried to hide her smile but the younger woman leaned forwards, shining with a professional zeal which told Catherine everything she needed to know.
Catherine focused her attention on the older woman, turning to face her with a degree of theatre which prompted a snarl from the younger agent.
‘In a minute, Catherine, let’s talk about today for a bit first then we’ll sort you out a cup of tea.’ she said.
Catherine shivered, restrained herself from wiping a stray snowflake from her cheek as she made eye contact with the older woman.
The woman shivered and repeated the gesture. Peterson, Catherine thought with a quiet sense of triumph. Yvonne.
‘I can’t place your accent. Not local, are you?’ Catherine said.
The agents exchanged a questioning look before the younger woman slid the tablet across the table.
‘Don’t pull the hocus pocus shit here. I’ll give you something which will make the stun gas feel like a spa day.’ she said.
Catherine felt the vibration of the bottle breaking against the bricks travelling down her hand. The group holding the man down, giggling as they pulled his trousers down and an ophidian uncurling of resentment and fear tasting like a stolen kiss on her lips.
‘What hocus pocus, Agent Newman?’ she said.
Catherine revolted at Newman’s disgusted snarl before it was slipped back behind the cheerful mask of authority again. She returned her attention to Yvonne Peterson. Her synapses hummed with recognition as she smiled and rested her chin in her hand.
Peterson coughed into her hand and rested her forearms on the table.
‘No, I was born in Burnley. You’re clever, Catherine, we all know it.’ she said.
Catherine heard the change in her accent and wondered if she noticed the drifting vowels coming to her words.
‘You got some weather up there, didn’t you? When it snows, it really fucking snows, doesn’t it?’ she said.
Peterson shivered and sat back, her face was pale and taut with unresolved tension.
‘Stop it. Cold reading is one of the first things you spot. It’s something people use to grant themselves unearned status, and it doesn’t intimidate me.’ she said.
Newman swallowed and tapped the table.
‘Drone footage shows you directing a group towards the Cradle Team, and passing them harmonic batons. On that alone, you’ll be on a zimmer frame before you get out.’ she said.
Catherine glanced at the footage with a smirk and returned her attention to Peterson.
‘You look like you get your best ideas when you go walking, would you agree?’ she said.
Newman smacked her fist against the table. Catherine turned her attention back to her.
‘I bet you were part of a Grrl Squad, weren’t you? You look the type.’ she said.
Newman scowled as her cheeks reddened and she sat back.
‘Grrl Squads were a legitimate expression against patriarchal misogyny. There were a lot of scare stories, but most people know they were bollocks.’ she said.
Catherine ran the tip of her tongue over her lips and smiled.
‘Bollocks.’ she said.
‘What was it like slicing open his scrotum?’ she said.
Newman narrowed her eyes and slid the tablet back into her hands as she looked at Peterson.
‘You called it. Fake scares and attitude.’ she said.
Catherine rolled her eyes and chuckled.
‘Yes, that’s me. I bet, if you tell anyone, you say you were surprised by the amount of blood but really you were delighted, weren’t you?’ she said.
Peterson coughed into her fist.
‘Tea sounds good, Newman.’ she said.
Newman pushed her chair back and stood up, passed the tablet to her and left the room, not before she glared at Catherine with loathing.
‘Everything’s recorded anyway, so talk all you want. You’re fucking done.’ she said.
She strode out of the room and Peterson shook her head.
‘She’s not wrong, you know. I’m disappointed, if I’m honest.’ she said.
Catherine folded her hands over one another.
‘Me too. Not with her, though. She was born to this.’ she said.
Catherine turned and stared into Peterson’s eyes.
‘You weren’t though.’ she said.
Peterson shuddered and brushed something from her cheek again.
‘You can stop. It’s pathetic without an audience.’ she said.
Catherine stared into Peterson’s eyes.
‘You would walk for hours, out in the snow so you could think. All those ideas and they kept you warm.’ she said.
Peterson brought her right hand up and smacked Catherine across the face. She wiped her nose and sniffed.
‘All those ideas and what did you do with them?’ she said.
Peterson swallowed as her stomach churned with discomfort.
‘Fuck off. The next time, I’ll use my fist.’ she said.
Catherine stared at her, and Peterson was mesmerised by how her pupils shifted colour and size, in perfect synchronicity with the pounding in her temples.
The pounding grew in volume and substance. Peterson tried to stand up, but her legs would not respond and all the world was reduced to Catherine’s gaze.
She had treasured the walks. Her lumpen father had no inner life, and her mother was a grey, exhausted ghost long before she took ill so she would take to nature and think about the world around her. The cough, she realised, had started there but it used to be a badge of honour, a feeling she had put herself out there, even if it was into herself.
Her thoughts slid away as the edges of her vision went black.
Newman was holding the chipped SocJus mug in her hand, as the kettle boiled, wondering how it would feel to crack it into the middle of the smug bitch’s face. The alien nature of the thought did not shock her at all.
The alarm did.
She tossed the mug down and ran back, shoving past colleagues and security as she barrelled into the room.
Peterson was stood up, her hands covered in blood as Catherine laid across the table, staring out at nothing with a final smile on her face. They pulled Peterson from the room and shouted for medical but Newman gauged the horrible angle of Catherine’s neck and knew it was too late. She envied Peterson, but the atavistic thought was stored away. She was too close, too shaken by Catherine’s conceit, and despite her warnings, Peterson had been taken by it too.
Newman wondered how this would impact on her career as she stared at the body.
Yvonne sat in the holding cell. They had taken her clothes and given her a unitard to wear as she sat in the corner and looked at her feet.
It had gone well, she told herself. She had adored Catherine De Sauve, but she had been a cartoon, useful to a point but neutered by position and reputation. It was a suit through which to encounter the world and discarding it was a bittersweet experience.
A death in custody was an inconvenience when filtered through the Matriarch Act. The crime of sedition was pinned to a corpse and held no consequence. Yvonne Peterson would undergo a psychiatric assessment and a board review, both of which had been accounted for when she had sat with Matt all those years ago, watching what was happening and deciding to go to war over it.
A year later they were in Tibet, sat in an ancient temple learning things which were inconvenient to the world which was being built.
Yvonne Peterson had been recruited into a war being fought on a scale her previous personality had begun to contemplate on her long winter walks. It was enough for Catherine to force a connection then a transfer. In the dark of the cell, she smiled to herself.
She was looking forward to getting back to work.
(https://ko-fi.com/mbblissett if you enjoyed this, and are feeling generous.)